“Is everyone who lives in Ignorance like you?” asked Milo. “Much worse,” [the Everpresent Wordsnatcher] said longingly. “But I don’t live here. I’m from a place very far away called Context.”
– Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth
In the crusade to eradicate “harmful” speech from campus and ensure that students are never forced to endure the unspeakable horror of confronting an idea with which they disagree, context is often the first casualty. FIRE frequently encounters efforts to punish, or declare as wholly “off-limits,” certain words or ideas—even when examination of the context in which they were expressed exposes those efforts as utterly ridiculous.
FIRE has combated this pernicious tendency at Brandeis University, where a professor was found guilty of racial harassment for using the word “wetbacks” in explaining its origins and criticizing its use to his students. We saw it again at the University of Nebraska, where a student senator faced a hearing after including the word “nigger” in a speech arguing that words should be examined in context rather than banned wholesale. Most recently, we fought it at Lewis & Clark College, where two friends were disciplined after a third party overheard them sharing racially themed humor at a party.
The latest example comes from the University of Chicago (UC), where students have started a petition calling on the university’s Institute of Politics (IOP) to ban the use of the word “tranny” and other “transphobic slurs” in its events.
The petition was written in response to a recent seminar held by the IOP featuring noted columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage and moderated by Guardian blogger Ana Marie Cox. During the seminar, Savage spoke about the reclamation of slurs and their empowering potential, using the word “tranny” as an example. Speaking of her personal experience with the word, Cox noted that she “used to make jokes about trannies.”
A student in the audience interrupted, apparently not comprehending the point Savage was making, and requested that Savage and Cox use the phrase “T-slur” rather than actually saying “tranny.” Savage balked at the request and debated the student, explaining his objective and inquiring as to whether he could use other particular “slurs” without objection. The student reportedly left the event in tears.
In response to this incident, UC student Sara Rubinstein started an online petition, demanding that IOP issue an apology and commit to prohibit the use of “slurs and hate speech” at future IOP events. The petition reads, in part:
Throughout the conversation both Savage and Cox used a transphobic slur repeatedly, supposedly in the context of explaining why the word was “problematic”. When this first started to occur, a trans student repeatedly asked them not to use the slur and tried to explain why it was offensive. Cox and Savage then proceeded to argue with the student, saying they had a right to use the word. Afterwards, Savage continued to use the slur despite knowing it was making students feel unsafe and both Cox and the IOP staff did nothing to stop him. This action upset the student to the point that they had to leave the room in a state of distress.
The usage of this slur constitutes hate speech, which is frankly unacceptable. There is a difference between respecting open discourse and permitting hate speech—a distinction that the IOP does not seem to understand. Both Ana Marie Cox, as the moderator, and the IOP staff have a responsibility to stop hate speech in order to maintain a safe and accessible space for students where respectful open discourse can actually occur. They failed to do this. The IOP proudly asserts its commitment to diversity, inclusion, and civil discourse. In order to stay true to these values, we demand that the IOP publicly apologize for failing to stop the use of the transphobic slur during the seminar and assert a commitment to preventing the use of slurs and hate speech in the future.
It is difficult to overstate the sense of irony that this petition and its author(s) sorely lack. The petitioners demand an outright ban on a word used by Savage, ignoring the fact that Savage was advocating that activists should change the context and re-appropriate that very word as a tool of empowerment. To demand that Savage desist from using the very word he was attempting to reclaim is nonsensical, and would in fact prevent him from effectively making his point. After all, how can one argue for the reclamation of a slur when any use of the word is prohibited in the first place? For that matter, how is anyone supposed to know what word is being contested when the petition itself won’t even use it?
Underlying this controversy rests a misguided attitude that is all too familiar to FIRE: that students have the right not to hear speech that offends them, and that such speech makes them “unsafe.” The petition argues that the IOP does not understand the distinction between “respecting open discourse” and “permitting hate speech,” the latter of which it claims denies students a “safe and accessible space.”
But if anyone is having difficulty making distinctions, it is Rubinstein and her band of censors. “Hate speech” is a wholly subjective and undefinable term most often used as justification for prohibiting whatever speech any individual listener subjectively finds noxious or offensive. Students certainly have a right to be safe from certain narrow and specific categories of speech such as true threats and actionable harassment—but there is no right to be safe from ideas or words that merely offend, no matter how deeply. Nor should students desire such a right. How much “open discourse” (which the petition claims to value) can truly be expected when the subjective sensibilities of any particular student may justify the censorship of certain words or ideas? The answer is very little indeed. In order to truly fulfill the ideals of higher education, students must be taught to develop and exercise critical thinking skills by confronting ideas that challenge their core beliefs. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously stated in his dissent in Abrams v. United States (1919)¸”the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas.”
Fortunately, it appears that not everyone in the UC community agrees with the misguided demand that “hate speech” be banned in the name of ensuring that students feel “comfortable” and “safe,” thus relieving students of the burden of thinking critically and examining words in context. In response to the controversy, the IOP released a statement, reading in part:
By definition, views will be expressed on occasion with which some will strongly disagree or even find deeply offensive. But we cannot remain true to our mission and be in the business of filtering guests or policing their statements to ensure they will always meet with broad agreement and approval and will not offend.
Last week at a Fellows seminar, a guest used language that provoked a spirited debate. The speaker was discussing how hurtful words can be re-purposed and used to empower; at no point did he direct any slurs at anyone. We acknowledge that some students found the discussion personally offensive and applaud them for strongly challenging the speaker, which was absolutely appropriate. To exclude or sanction him would not have been.
And in a letter published in The Chicago Maroon, a group of students concluded:
All of us support the Institute of Politics because in our experience the IOP strives to represent a variety of viewpoints from across the political spectrum. The staff and students work all year to bring speakers with a diversity of ideas, programs, and backgrounds to speak on campus. But conflict and contention cannot be resolved without conversation. We think that in not endorsing any of the views of the speakers that it brings to campus, but enabling them to facilitate conversation, the Institute of Politics provides an invaluable service to the University of Chicago.
In discussing matters of societal importance, many of which are highly controversial, one would be hard-pressed to find an opinion that does not deeply offend someone. Were demands such as those of the petitioners met, it would be virtually impossible for anyone to say anything of any real import. The freedom to offend is a feature of our model of free speech, not a bug, and is essential in the quest for ultimate truth. The Supreme Court recognized as much when it wrote in Terminiello v. Chicago (1949):
[F]ree speech . . . may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea.
We urge all Everpresent Wordsnatchers at campuses across the country to return to the Land of Context, reject censorship of “offensive” speech, and embrace truly open discourse, where students are able to engage in true learning by freely debating words and ideas in the marketplace of ideas.